Updated Nutrition for Older Adults
If you're an older adult, make this MyPlate your plate.
If you've got your AARP card but you're still eating the way you did in your 20s, it's time for your diet to act your age. While most nutritional guidance is "ageless," you do need to make some adjustments to fit the changing needs of your aging body. As activity levels decrease and muscle mass declines, for example, older people need to consume fewer calories to avoid gaining weight. Because you need fewer calories, however, it’s more important to choose foods that are nutrient dense - concentrated sources of vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein and other essentials. You may also need more of certain nutrients or be at risk for deficiency because your body absorbs some less well.
Tufts experts recently introduced an updated MyPlate for Older Adults graphic, which emphasizes these special nutritional needs in a framework of the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs). The icon was developed by nutrition scientists at the Jean Mayer US Department of Agriculture Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts with support from the AARP Foundation. It's the fourth version of this graphic; an accompanying website was launched at <hnrca.tufts.edu/myplate>.
"It is never too late to make smart changes in your diet," says Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, director of Tufts' HNRCA Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory. "Shifting towards healthier food choices can improve symptoms or decrease risk for developing chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension and heart disease - all of which are more common in older than younger adults."
"Many people are not aware of the key role that healthy eating patterns play in improving their bodily function such as that of brain, eye and the immune system," says Simin Nikbin Meydani, DVM, PhD, director of the HNRCA.
GETTING ENOUGH: The foods highlighted in the new graphic are good examples of nutrient-dense choices, which was also an emphasis in the latest DGAs. What's the difference? A large peach and five ounces of non-diet cola each contain about 65 calories, but the peach contains fiber, vitamins A and C, potassium and other nutrients - it's more nutrient dense. The cola is energy dense because of its high sugar content, but provides no healthy nutrients. Even within the fruit and vegetable category, substituting fresh spinach for iceberg lettuce can boost nutrient intake.
Another reason to make smart food choices as you get older is that it can be harder to get enough of certain key nutrients than when you were younger. This can occur either because your body and lifestyle have changed or because your needs have increased with age. Examples include:
- Vitamin B12—The amount of B12 your body needs doesn't change with age, but your ability to obtain this vitamin from food might. People with low levels of stomach acids, whether due to aging or the use of certain medications, can't extract as much dietary B12. The vitamin B12 found in fortified foods, such as breakfast cereals, is already in a free form that the body can use.
- Vitamin D -With age, the body loses some of its natural ability to make vitamin D from sun exposure, and older people often spend less time out in the sun.
- Calcium -The amount of calcium needed to maintain bone density and prevent fractures increases for women over age 50 and for all adults over age 70. Experts advise getting as much of your daily calcium needs as possible from dietary sources, such as fat-free or low-fat yogurt.
- Fiber - Like other systems in your body, your GI tract no longer functions as efficiently when you get older. Fiber can help with constipation, and has also been linked to lower risk of a variety of diseases associated with aging.
- Water - Your sense of thirst diminishes with age, so you may need to pay closer attention to getting enough water and other healthy fluids to prevent dehydration.
RETHINKING YOUR PLATE:The new MyPlate for Older Adults icon depicts a colorful plate with images to encourage older Americans to follow a healthy eating pattern bolstered by physical activity.
The plate is composed of approximately:
- 50% fruits and vegetables;
- 25% grains, most of which are whole grains; and
- 25% protein-rich foods such as nuts, beans, fish, lean meat, poultry, and fat-free and low-fat dairy products such as milk, cheeses, and yogurts.
The new icon also shows good sources of fluids, such as water, milk, tea, soup and coffee; heart-healthy fats such as vegetable oils and soft margarines. The accompanying website also spotlights herbs and spices to be used in place of salt to lower sodium intake (see next page).